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Friday, June 24, 2005

Unitarian Universalists 'invading the Bible belt.'

Jim Jones writes a curtain-raiser for Knight-Ridder about the UUA's General Assembly in Fort Worth, highlighting three themes: Unitarian Universalist support for same-sex marriage, UU opposition to the death penalty, and "a possibly controversial report, 'Engaging Our Theological Diversity,' citing ways to embrace a "language of reverence," whether referring to God or spirit or an ultimate meaning." His lede:

The Unitarian Universalist Association - a remarkably inclusive American denomination that embraces Christians, Buddhists, Humanists, Wiccans, atheists and theists - are invading the Bible Belt this week.

In last night's Opening Ceremony, however, I was struck by two things I hadn't fully appreciated: The Southwest Conference of the UUA now includes the largest number of congregations of any UUA district — 75, I believe I heard Craig Roshaven say in his welcome — and, with two of its largest congregations (All Souls in Tulsa and First Unitarian in Dallas) and the most new congregations this year, I'm not so sure that the rest of us haven't come to the "Bible belt" to see how Unitarian Universalism is done especially well.

("Unitarian Universalist Assembly Faces Tough Topics," Jim Jones [Knight-Ridder], 6.22.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 24 June 2005 at 8:32 AM

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June 24, 2005 10:00 PM | Permalink for this comment


Since I had to leave GA early (very early!) to return to preside over a memorial service, I will comment from afar.

I wouldn't make too much out of the fact that the Southwest District is the largest district in terms of numbers of congregations. The division into districts is a weird practice. All districts were created to be about identical in the number of congregations, but they vary wildly in their geographic size. The Southwest District includes Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas plus Springfield, MO and Memphis, TN. In comparison, the Mass Bay District is the smallest geographically (the Eastern quarter of Massachusetts minus Cape Cod.) And Mass Bay has a greater membership, I believe.

Additionally, I wouldn't make too much of the fact that the SWD has the most new churches (3). For one thing, Texas is a fast growing state. Secondly, where it is growing is in the exurbs of Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Houston - prime church planting areas. While UU's have recently began new congregations in three of these metro areas, we are not keeping up with the sprawl.

Finally, what Texas does have in its favor for growth is that church attendance / membership is a more normative behavior than in many other areas. A year spent living in Texas serving at a Texas UU church convinced me that UUs should thrive there. Everybody, EVERYBODY, goes to church it seems. And religious liberals get a piece of that pie. But here is the kicker: I believe that one of the reasons that churches thrive in places like Texas is because of a convergence of three inter-related factors: the tremendous lack of anything resembling a public square, the corporatization of public space and community, and the degraded state of public services. Walking through Ft. Worth it was striking how there was nothing like a Boston Common. Increasingly in Texas, church is where people go to get their education, parks & rec, sports leagues and many of the services that are made available to all people as public services in places like Massachusetts.

What is that line about statistics?


June 25, 2005 01:29 AM | Permalink for this comment

Ah, you called my bluff, RevThom! I was giving props to the UUs deep in the heart of Texas, not abandoning my very deep preference for Massachusetts.

Eric Posa:

June 29, 2005 12:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

Much obliged to Philocrites for the kind words about my hometown and district. (And it was good seeing you again, Chris.) Brother Thom (good to see you, too) replies with some cautions about taking our strides too much to heart. While these initially ruffled my prideful, native Texan feathers, I soon realized that there were some good points here. However:

- Thom mentions the growth in Texas exurban areas. Yes, that's substantial, but it's also substantial in many parts of the country, esp. the Southeast (Atlanta, North Carolina, Florida) and the West, which also have high church-going ratios. It may be that we're taking better advantage of this growth here than in other parts of the country: Austin's Live Oak Church, and Northwoods UUC in the Houston suburbs, are good examples. Thom is right on the money, regretably, about the lack of gov't services in TX, which evangelical megachurches often provide instead, but we UUs are slowly learning down here how to manage that, to provide some of these services for people who need them, and that is leading to some growth for us.

- The Mass Bay District does have a larger average church membership (because we have several historical fellowships, that are historically small, like the one I serve). But the Southwestern UU Conference (we don't call it a district, because we emphasize a pre-merger tradition of strong lateral relationships among our congregations) is one of the fastest growing--half of last year's growth in UUA congregational memberships can be attributed to our neck of the woods. Why here?

- Maybe because other factors than the ones Thom mentions are more important. For one thing, the biggest growth of the last two years or so, that I'm aware of here, is in some of the urban churches, rather than the suburban ones: Dallas 1st, Emerson in Houston, and (arguably) Austin 1st.

- Plus, of the three new churches, only one (Wildflower, in south Austin) is in a growing "suburban" area. (Though I should not insult anyone from south Austin by calling that area a "suburb" - it's more like a re-vitalized section of a large city.) Another (UU Community Church of Norman, OK) was the result of a split from a fellowship, and the other is in Alpine, Texas. Go to Yahoo Maps, or Mapquest, and look up Alpine, Texas. That place gives a new meaning to "exurban" - the only place farther from a growing city is the Aleutian Islands.

But I've defended my district enough--my larger point is that a lot of factors have gone into the growth we've experienced here, but the main thing is that our most vital congregations have figured out how to take advantage of the factors working for them.

Kurt Jensen:

June 29, 2005 05:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

If you can actually find statistics about districts from UUA please tell us. Everything I look up is at the congregational level. I suspect, but can not substantiate, that our districts are nowhere near the same size in actual UU members in a congregation. You can't easily draw such data from

That said, the Joseph Priestley District has nine large churches, including two which just recently grew into that size. Some districts like Florida have none. This would seem to show that the mid-Atlantic area is very fertile ground for UU church planting.

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